This is the first report of two, presenting the status of the Northern Sea Route, providing key information about its water area, shipping lanes, ports, freight traffic, and Arctic fleet – cargo vessels and icebreakers.
Published February 28th 2019
By Akvaplan-niva, Alexei Bambulyak
The Northern Sea Route (NSR), a shipping lane stretching from Novaya Zemlya in the west to the Bering Strait in the east, is also referred to as being part of the Northeast Passage. However, the name Northeast Passage was replaced by Northern Sea Route back in the 1920s. In 1932, the Soviet Union established the Main Department of the NSR.
The NSR has been open to international transits since 2009.
The NSR was operated as a Russian national shipping lane and was
closed to foreign cargo ships until 2009. Since 2009, the NSR has been
open to international transits, and Russia has been putting resources
into developing the route at various levels – introducing changes in
federal laws and regulations, building offshore and onshore
infrastructure, and marketing new shipping opportunities. Greater
international interest in the NSR as a prospective international
shipping lane has also highlighted challenges associated with the stable
operation and further development of the route.
Russia applies national regulations in the NSR pursuant to Article
234 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
In 2012 changes were made to the Russian legislation directly related
to shipping within the NSR area. The so-called Law on the Northern Sea
Route (Federal Law N 132-FZ dated 28/07/2012) introduced changes to the
existing Federal Laws regulating shipping and, in particular, defined
the new term 'The Northern Sea Route Area' – the sector of the sea
within the Exclusive Economic Zone of Russia (200 nm) and bordered by
the longitudes of Novaya Zemlya in the west and of the Bering Strait in
the east (see Figure 1) – where special sailing rules apply. The NSR
Administration was established under the Ministry of Transport with the
authority to issue permits for sailing within the NSR area.
In December 2018, a new law (Federal Law N 525-FZ dated 27/12/2018) was adopted giving responsibility for managing the NSR to Rosatom, the state atomic energy corporation, which includes Atomflot, the operator of the Russian nuclear-powered icebreakers. Rosatom has responsibility for developing and managing shipping, infrastructure and sea ports along the NSR. Permits for sailing within the NSR area will be issued by the NSR Administration in agreement with Rosatom.
The Development Strategy for the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation defines the NSR as a national and international maritime artery intended for year-round navigation. Covering the area of water between the Kara Gate in the West and the Bering Strait in the East, the NSR offers various navigable paths that can be followed depending on the current ice conditions, as well as on the fleet’s capacity and icebreaking capabilities. The NSR runs for about 3500 nm.
Russia’s Arctic maritime transport system comprises the following elements:
The NSR (Northern Sea Route) area (covering a set of navigable waterways)
A fleet of cargo ships, icebreakers and support vessels
Onshore infrastructure including ports; navigation, hydrographic and hydrometeorological support equipment; communication systems; etc.
The most common shipping lane along the NSR is the one running along the north coast of Russia, passing through a number of Arctic straits. It has been the object of thorough navigational and hydrographic surveys, is covered by large-scale nautical charts and is supported by sufficient navigational aids.
However, this waterway is only suitable for vessels with a maximum draft of 12 metres, as the Sannikov Strait and the area around the Medvezhyi Islands, the two major constraints, cannot be navigated by vessels with deeper drafts.
Heavy-tonnage vessels with deeper drafts could use the paths that run at higher latitudes, north of the New Siberian Islands. From a navigational point of view, however, the routes at higher latitudes remain under-investigated and they require more hydrographic surveys.
The key ports along the NSR include Sabetta, Igarka, Dudinka, Dikson, Tiksi, Pevek and Providenie.
With the exception of Sabetta, the newly-built Yamal LNG port, and Dudinka, owned by Norilsk Nickel MMC, all the Arctic ports seem to be the NSR’s most underdeveloped assets, on account of them receiving insufficient funding allocations in the past. A set of measures to refurbish and promote the Arctic ports are currently under elaboration, some of which are focusing on upgrading the equipment of existing port facilities.
Significant development is expected at the port of Pevek, the northernmost town in Russia, located in Chukotka, with the deployment of the Akademik Lomonosov, the first Russian floating nuclear power station. The Akademik Lomonosov
platform was delivered from St Petersburg to Murmansk in 2018 for installation of the reactors. It is expected to be shipped to Pevek in 2019.
In the Soviet period, the NSR was a key part of the ‘Northern Deliveries’ programme – delivery of goods to remote Siberian areas by sea and river.
The maximum freight traffic along the NSR in the Soviet period was reached in 1987 when 6.5 mln tonnes of cargo were transported. In the 1990s, freight volumes were in decline and dropped to 1.5 mln tonnes in 2000.
Cargo volumes started to grow again in 2010. A new high for NSR freight traffic was set in 2016, when 7.3 mln tonnes of cargo were shipped, and that growth has continued. In 2018, the freight volume along the NSR almost reached 20 mln tonnes, and Atomflot estimates that it may reach 29 mln tonnes in 201).
Significant growth in total freight volumes within the NSR area started with the implementation of large-scale petroleum projects in the north of Western Siberia, first with inbound cargoes (delivery of construction materials), and then with outbound oil and gas cargoes. Transit volumes reached their maximum in 2013, when 1.36 mln tonnes were transported
GRAF HER: Annual freight traffic on the Northern Sea Route– inbound/outbound and transit, in mln tonnes (Source: NSR Administration)
Maritime cargo flows bound for the ports along the NSR come from both the east and west. The most common cargoes include construction materials, coal, sawn timber, food and vehicles. The outgoing cargo flows are mainly bound for western destinations via the port of Murmansk or for direct export – like the nickel matte, copper-nickel ore and non-ferrous metals shipped from Dudinka.
Since November 2018, LNG from Yamal has been delivered from Sabetta to Honningsvåg for transhipment. During the summer navigation period, LNG from Yamal is also exported eastwards to Asian markets.
For 2018, the NSR Administration issued 792 permits to sail within the NSR area, including 91 to vessels with foreign flags.
The majority of freight volumes consist of hydrocarbon exports (crude oil and LNG) from the Arctic coast of Russia:
The first transit voyage along the NSR took place back in 1932 when a research expedition sailed on the Alexander Sibiryakov steam icebreaker.
In 2009, the NSR was opened for international transits, which was followed by an increase in transits, which had been suspended in the early 1990s.
The return of international commercial shipping to the NSR was marked by a voyage from the port of Masan in the Republic of Korea to Yamburg in Ob Bay in the Kara Sea undertaken in 2009 by two Beluga vessels assisted by two nuclear-powered icebreakers, 50 Let Pobedy and Rossiya. 2010 saw four transit voyages through the NSR in total – two carrying 70,000 tonnes of gas condensate and 41,000 tonnes of iron ore concentrate, and the other two carrying ballast. In 2011, the NSR was transited 34 times.
The giant Vladimir Tikhonov (Sovcomflot-owned, 162,000 deadweight tonnes) followed the high-latitude path from west to east, carrying 120,800 tonnes of gas condensate to Thailand. Reefer ships also started to use the NSR as way of delivering fish from the Far Eastern region of Russia to Saint Petersburg, with four such voyages taking place in 2011.
2013 was the peak year for transit voyages and cargo volumes shipped via the NSR, with 71 transit voyages and a total of 1.36 million tonnes of cargo.
In 2014, transit cargo volumes dropped to 274 thousand tonnes and in 2015 they fell to 39 thousand tonnes, the lowest volume since 2009.
In 2016-2018, NSR transit cargo volumes were in the range of 200-300 thousand tonnes per year.
In 2018, 27 transit voyages were completed along the NSR, including 17 by vessels under foreign flags. There were 10 international transit voyages with 300 thousand tonnes of cargo in total:
Given the ice conditions along the NSR, navigational safety is dependent on a mighty fleet of icebreakers
Foto av Susanne Hætta for kbnn:
Freight transport within Arctic waters requires ice-class carriers and icebreaker assistance.
As of 2019, the Russian Arctic transport fleet numbers 220 carriers (most of them under Russian flag) with a total deadweight of about 4 million tonnes.
The ships navigating the NSR waterways include supply vessels, timber carriers, tankers, bulk carriers and container ships. All of them have to be of the appropriate ice class (Arc4 to Arc7) and suitable for year-round operation in Arctic conditions.
NOVATEK has, with its partners in LNG projects, ordered 15 ice-class Arc7 170,000 m3 LNG carriers for the Yamal LNG and Arctic LNG 2 projects – seven of which have been put into service, with the remaining eight due to be delivered in 2019.
Sovcomflot, contracted by Gazprom Neft, has built six ice-class Arc7 40,000 dwt tankers for shipping crude oil from the Novoportovskoye field via the Arctic Gate terminal in Ob Bay and is constructing a seventh one.
In addition, Gazprom Neft has received the diesel ice-breaker Aleksandr Sannikov (22 MW), and is building a second one, Andrey Vilkitskiy, for that project.
Norilsk Nickel operates six ice-class Arc7 18,000 dwt vessels for shipping final products (non-ferrous and precious metals) and gas condensate from Dudinka on the Yenisey river.
Given the ice conditions along the NSR, navigational safety is dependent on a mighty fleet of icebreakers. In 2018, Arctic navigation was supported by four nuclear-powered icebreakers
Three more 60 MW nuclear-powered icebreakers (see Figure 11) are expected to join the Arctic fleet by 2021. Arktika, the first multipurpose dual-draft nuclear-powered icebreaker, will be delivered in 2019 and will be the first of its kind to navigate both high seas and river estuaries, as it has two operating drafts of 10.5 and 8.5 metres.
The icebreakers of this type are being built by Baltic Shipyard in St Petersburg. Five such icebreakers should be delivered by 2026 to replace Arktika-type and Taimyr-type vessels that will be decommissioned.
Rosatom plans to construct four 40 MW LNG-powered line icebreakers, and three 120 MW nuclear-turbo-electric icebreakers. All of them are to be delivered by 2035 to ensure cargo volume growth and year-round navigation in the Russian Arctic.
According to Atomflot’s estimates, annual freight traffic along the NSR will be of the order of 65 to 90 mln tonnes in 2030.